Director: Dziga Vertov
Numbers one to eight on the Sight and Sound 2022 poll are – diverse in time, language and theme – broadly feature films. Scripts, actors, costumes and sets telling a story. Number nine is a different beast altogether – a hour-long documentary film chronicling urban life in twenties Soviet Union – AKA The Man With a Movie Camera, directed by Dziga Vertov in 1929. Arising out of techniques developed in his earlier ‘kino-pravda’ newsreels in the twenties, Vertov’s hour-long silent film sought to create a completely new film language without any reference to other art-forms like literature, theatre or painting.
The structure of MWAMC is fairly straightforward: there’s a very ‘meta’ opening in which we the audience in the cinema see the audience assemble in the cinema, the band tune up, the projectionist fire up the projector and so on. Sadly no DVD version in which we assemble on the sofa, Pringles and beer to hand, while someone feeds the disc in and tries to sync up the sound bar.
Then the film itself follows the rhythm of a day in the life of a Soviet city – compiled from shots in Mosow, Kiev and Odessa. We see the citizens waking up, the trams and street cleaners getting the day started and sleepy-eyed workers leave for the day’s toil. The factory whistle summons all. Work itself varies from textile mills and cigarette factories to steel mills . Vertov is drawn to the same things in all these workplaces – the rhythms of machines, particularly pistons, cylinders, cogs and belts. There are heroic workers, but Vertov loves a lady worker just as much. After the working day there’s recreation – fabulous slow-motion shots of steeplechase races, long jumps and football; time for swimming and sunbathing on the beach; and a pint at the bar.
But – fascinating as it all is – the content is not what secures this century-old piece in the top ten. It’s how it’s done, Vertov and team are practically inventing modern direction and editing before our eyes.
The camera itself is the protagonist – seeing it all, in constant motion, on bridges, lying down on train tracks, swooping up or zooming in. It’s a delirious exploration of the possibilities of this fast-evolving medium. Not only is the camera a character, the cameraman himself appears frequently filmed by another camera: as in the frequent shots when the camera is mounted on a car to capture the motion of a horse and cart or bicyclists. All this leads up to an ending in which the camera – through stop-motion – becomes a character entirely independent of human operation.
More than the content, more than the direction, its the editing that continues to astonish the viewer. MWAMC is almost a complete manual of how to shoot and edit. Jump cuts, dissolves, dutch angles, slow motion, sped up, picture in picture, stop motion, montages, mirror shots, superimpositions – it’s a film education in an hour. Can there be a film school course that doesn’t have a module on this. And yet, unlike Citizen Kane or even Reifenstahl’s work, MWAMC feels like a professional secret – a film that only those in the know know. If it was a band it would be the Velvet Underground. Only a thousand people have seen it, but everyone who did went out and made their own films.
There’s a sly humour at work that undercuts (unlike Reifenstahl, or even Eisenstein) the heavier propaganda. At one point the cameraman materialises in a pint of beer. There’s some Keaton slapstick stuff with an oncoming train. No surprise the Soviet authorities didn’t quite know what to make of its subversive wit.
Might appeal to people who enjoyed:
This film’s influence, for such a little-seen movie, is practically universal. Reifenstahl nicked all the camera tricks and angles for Triumph of the Will and Olympia, slowed everything down to a funereal pace and of course junked any hint of wit. Koyaanisqatsi revisited almost exactly the same theme, but now with a critique of the mass urban life Vertov celebrated.